Mallory Lass reviews Broken Trails by D. Jordan Redhawk

Broken Trails by D Jordan Redhawk cover

Trigger Warnings: Suicide of a minor character (occurs in the past and is recounted), and alcoholism.

Spoilers marked separately at the end.

A gripping adventure romance, set in “Big Sky Country” Alaska at the famous Iditarod dog sledding race, features a swoon worthy protagonist and a driven but out of control (at times) love interest.

Scotch Fuller is the eldest of 4 kids and winning the Iditarod is not only her dream, but her family’s life work. The Fuller family runs and operates a dog racing kennel and dog sledding tourism company. Scotch is hard working, independent, disciplined young woman. Her family is everything to her and they are her biggest cheerleaders. She has a great head on her shoulders and soft butch vibe that will make you weak in the knees.

Laney is a successful nature photographer who just finished a long assignment in Africa. She reluctantly agrees to go on a quick assignment to Alaska as a favor to her friend Ben, a magazine editor. She is physically ill equipped for the Alaskan elements and emotionally blindsided by an up and coming Iditarod star who catches her eye. Laney is dealing with personal baggage that has manifested into a drinking problem.

Scotch has an amazing rookie run to set the stage but the real adventure starts when Laney convinces the magazine (against her own better judgement) to do a series of stories about Scotch’s training for her sophomore run at the Iditarod. Ben agrees, as long as Laney trains to run the race as a rookie. Laney isn’t sure if she wants to go back to Alaska, and Scotch isn’t sure she wants the distraction of training someone. Despite Laney being a decade or so older than Scotch, they both have a lot to teach each other about life and love. The age-gap is mentioned but is not a big part of the story, nor is it a source of consternation.

I really enjoyed this book, and I am definitely not a dog person! Ever since I saw a documentary series on the Iditarod via the discovery channel over a decade ago, the sport has fascinated me. Add a lesbian romance and I was immediately drawn to it. This is a great story for someone who likes long, slow burn romances. At nearly 400 pages you really get the complete Iditarod experience from couch to finish line. Redhawk really makes you feel like you are on the sled with Scotch and Laney, sleep deprived, bitter cold hitting your face, danger at every turn.

Ultimately, I think this story is about laying yourself bare. About finding out that another person can still love you, despite scars, secrets, or shortcomings of character. That is really how Scotch and Laney stole my heart.

***Spoilers***

I am a sucker for letters, and was excited when Don gave the letter to Laney from Scotch when the race started. I was kind of disappointed it took to nearly the end to discover the contents, and given the structure of Scotch being ahead, they were only one sided.

The Tonya storyline was important to Scotch’s growth, but I felt could have been developed a little more before the reveal. It felt like she needed something to be going through, some scar to match Laney’s but it kinda felt dropped in rather than lived in.

The sex scene, the long awaited sex scene, was too short for how late in the book it came. And to fade to black when it was Scotch’s turn to be pleasured just blew the wind out of my sails. Their exchange was emotional, and their speeches at the end nearly made up for it…nearly.

Mars reviews Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel cover

It’s hard to boil this one down. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a complex portrait of a complex family. Let no one tell you that graphic novels cannot be intense reckonings of literature, especially not when they have become staples of the modern lesbian literary canon and have been reproduced as a very successful Tony-award winning Broadway production.

In a very basic sense, Fun Home is an autobiography of the author’s life, from a young tomboy to an out-and-proud lesbian, in the context of her father’s life right up until his maybe suicide, maybe accidental death only a few short months after she came out to her parents and in turn came to learn of her father’s own troubled sexuality. Bechdel paints a portrait of her father as a stern, intellectual figure who was clearly devoted to his family but struggled to reconcile his role within it with his apparent homosexuality. The backdrop of this story is the 1970s (the author recalls passing New York City’s Stonewall Inn as a girl shortly after the infamous riots), a time during which sexual or gender queerness was criminal. We must wonder that if Bechdel’s collegiate sexual awakening was radical, how can we understand her father’s own lifetime of repressed sexuality? This is among the key tensions that Bechdel is trying to work out here.

In Fun Home, her father Bruce is remembered as a high school English teacher and sometimes small-town mortician obsessed with classic literature and 19th century historical preservation. He is defined by his obsessions because, as the author notes, they are the clearest lenses through which she could understand him. Indeed, Bechdel uses an apt metaphor comparing her father to the Greek figure Daedalus and herself to his son Icarus, and wonders: “Was Daedalus really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea? Or just disappointed by the design failure?”

As children become adults, there is a well-known phenomenon of disillusionment which occurs, whereby magical parental authority is stripped away and parents can be understood as the flawed, struggling humans who they actually are. That Bechdel didn’t have the opportunity to reach this stage with her father, who died while she was in college at the age of 44, is an explanation for his almost mythological status here. It’s also evident in the conflicting feelings of resentment and affection that Bechdel’s self-stylized character struggles with throughout the book.

As affectionately as Bechdel illustrates nights playing piano with her father, strutting around in his old suits, and borrowing books from his personal library upon recommendation, readers begin this story by seeing a violent, abusive, and overall terrifying father figure. Family secrets, comic and shameful, feature as important narrative points in this book. Although it is tucked away in the acknowledgements, I think the best summary of this story is this note from Bechdel to her remaining family: “Thanks to Helen, Christian, and John Bechdel for not trying to stop me from writing this book.”

This is not lighthearted reading. The author’s ambivalent narration of events as they are recalled from her often vague childhood journals are riddled with obsessive-compulsive inaccuracies can be jarring. On the scale of tragic versus comic, this life story does seem to lean more one way than another. As stated from the outset though, this is a complex portrait of a complex family. It is full of rich literary references, scenes of a childhood innocence preserved through childish ignorance, and the longing for a familial connection that never achieved its full potential.

For more info on Alison Bechdel and Fun Home, check out this interview she did with The Guardian.

Claire Blatter reviews The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan

This book is a very complex one. I put off doing the review for a while, letting myself absorb the content fully. It’s only three hundred something pages, but the story within is heavy. It is about some very triggering content, including a suicide attempt, many references to people who have committed suicide, and descriptions of violence against women. I will be talking a little bit about this kind of stuff in my review, so consider yourself warned.

The story is about two different stories that might or might not have happened, according to the unreliable narrator. A lot of the story focuses on duality: the character is named India Morgan Phelps, but people also call her Imp, her mother and grandmother both committed suicide in two very different ways, the inciting event occurs either in July or August, and the woman she meets might be a siren or a werewolf.

Confused? Yeah, so is the protagonist.

Imp has schizophrenia, and this is very important to the story. Of course, when mental illness plays an important role in the story, I get hyper critical. It’s so easy to just make mental illness into the big scary monster, especially in horror or similar genres. But because the author identifies so deeply with the protagonist we don’t see the schizophrenia as some demonic possession. It’s part of the story, and part of the main character falling apart, but it’s not the enemy. It’s just part of the story, and part of the protagonist.

Another part is her unique take on life. She’s a lesbian, and at the time the story takes place she lives with her girlfriend, who is trans. This is treated very respectfully, which makes sense considering the author is a trans lesbian herself. She is fascinated with art and writing, which come into play as symbols of her understanding of what happened. Imp is trying to tell us the honest story of the past six months or so, and tell us in her unique voice.

It is confusing, as I had said earlier, which made it hard to get into. Also, with all the art and literature talk, it gets a little hard to understand. Some of the art is actually real, and others seem to be made up for the story, which was another thing I didn’t really get. But it doesn’t really matter–being confused is part of the experience. While it is something important, it can take some time to get used to. It was worth it to get to the end in my view.

This story, aside from its drawbacks, is incredible. It is one of the most unique stories I’ve read. The author is a mentally ill trans woman, and so this definitely feels like it comes from the heart. You could place it in horror, with the sinister feeling developed throughout the novel, or fantasy with the creatures of legends and loose grip on reality, or even label it as a memoir considering how it is written, but none of those are quite right. It’s a deeply personal novel, one that I appreciated profoundly as a mentally ill lesbian myself. I would suggest it to anyone who likes complex and dark novels!

Four stars!

Kelly reviews Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws by Kate Bornstein

After the success of the It Gets Better project and the recent publication of the accompanying book, I wanted to revisit another book aimed at suicidal young queers. Kate Bornstein’s Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws was first published in 2006. Bornstein is well known as a performance artist and gender warrior, and this book she offers advice for young folks facing bullying, depression, and suicidal thoughts. This book will appeal to some young people for its honesty, though it may turn others off with its occasional corniness. Many adults are likely to enjoy it as well.

The book’s opening chapters drag a bit. Some teens may appreciate the crash course in gender, sexuality, and oppression, but the lack of depth will frustrate others. The heart of the book consists of the 101 alternatives. Each suggestion has been rated for ease, effectiveness, safety, and age-appropriateness. Options range from self-reflective activities like #7: Trash your preferences and reboot, to pure avoidance, as in #14: Run away and hide. Each item has some explanatory text and often further resources to seek out. They are easy to browse and skip through, and the book is best viewed as a guide for occasional reference. Many alternatives are cross-referenced. For example, many lead back to #34: Sing for your supper. Bornstein wants young people to see how to capitalize on their experiences, and uses her own life examples to show the ongoing benefits of self-empowerment. As she is Auntie Kate, some of the recommendations are controversial. However, though she lists self-touch and drug use as options, both are explained within a particular–and quite reasonable–context. (Some parents or teachers may feel uncomfortable with references to sex and drugs, but hey, maybe they could use #7 themselves.)

Overall, Bornstein has created an amiable, flexible set of tools. She recognizes that a lesser form of self-harm is better than suicide, a perspective rarely acknowledged by adults. Her goal is not to trick anyone into being a happier person, but rather to help us grow stronger and build skills to cope in this cruel world.

P.S. Special bonus: the introduction was written by Sara Quin!